It seems obvious from the outside: if you are in a relationship with an abusive partner, you should leave them immediately. While that may be the best course of action for some, there are many significant reasons why it is not always right and/or safe for victims to just leave. Every person, every relationship, and every situation is different. There are emotional complications, practical hurdles, and devastating repercussions that can make it confusing, tough, and frequently dangerous to leave. To better understand the potential difficulties victims face, here are some of the factors that often keep them with an abuser:
Victims know best what their abuser is capable of. They may fear that any sign of leaving could result in more intense abuse or even death. Abusers may specifically threaten to kill victims. The time surrounding leaving their abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim. Risk of lethality is severely increased if the abuser feels they are losing any of the control they have over the victim. 75% of homicide victims and 85% of women who experienced severe but nonfatal violence had left or tried to leave their abuser in the past year (Dept. of Justice). Victims may also fear reprisals after leaving, that their abuser will be determined to track them down and hurt them more because they left. There is a 75% increase in violence upon separation for at least two years (CRAAEA).
Safety/Wellbeing of Children and/or Pets
In addition to their conduct toward their partner, abusers may threaten to hurt any children and/or pets in the household. Many victims may be unwilling to risk harm to loved ones when they might have risked it for themselves alone. They may fear that their abuser will get custody of the children in a separation, could abuse the children, or prevent the victim from seeing them. Another common belief is that children are better off with both parents together even if the relationship is not healthy. The vast majority of victims also know that, on their own, they will not be able to provide for their children as well as the children are used to or as the victim would like to be able to. They are reluctant to move their children away from their familiar home, school, and friends. Pets are also exceedingly important family members to some victims. They may stay in unhealthy relationships to protect their animals from harm or neglect by their abuser and/or because they would be unable to take their pets with them if they left.
99% of abusive relationships also involve some form of financial abuse (Forbes) and many intimate partner violence victims are prevented from having much, if any, money for their own use. They may be unemployed, have no access to cash or a bank account, and/or not own any valuable assets. If they are working and have a steady income, it is usually under the total control of the abusive partner. Lacking funds to support themselves and their children, many victims feel they do not have the means to leave an abuser upon whom they are fiscally reliant. Beyond needing money for immediate basic needs (shelter, food, etc.) when leaving, consequences of financial abuse such as uncertain job prospects, lack of education, and a poor credit score can have a major effect on long-term solvency, not to mention the cost of single-parenting, medical bills, and legal fees. Learn more about financial abuse in DVSN’s August 2021 blog post “The Big Picture Economic Impact of Domestic Violence”.
Lack of Resources/Knowledge
Victims may be unaware of what types of resources and assistance are available to them, or even that there are any. While there are many national organizations providing support to all Americans, local organizations can be few and far between in some areas of the country. Certain victims, such as individuals with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ people, have fewer resources available and may face public officials, organizations, and/or service providers who are unable or unwilling to assist them. Check out DVSN’s June 2022 blog, “LGBTQIA+ Domestic Abuse: Distinct Challenges and Barriers to Support” for more details on the queer community. Not knowing how to safely leave, where they could go to get away, and believing they have nowhere to turn for support can be strong deterrents to leaving an abusive partner.
Lack of Support from Family & Friends
Aside from lack of community resources, some victims may suffer a lack of support from their loved ones. Abusers frequently isolate their victims, separating them physically and emotionally from friends and family. Even if they are in close contact with loved ones, victims may not feel comfortable confiding in them, feel they cannot help, or feel that they will not help. Whether or not it is true, an expectation that the people in their lives won’t believe them, will side with their abuser, or will tell them it can’t be that bad and not to throw away the relationship causes some victims to feel they must stay.
Religious teachings and spiritual beliefs can have a huge impact on what a victim feels is the right thing to do. Some religions frown upon or disallow divorce. Religious counselors or leaders may encourage victims to try to save their marriage and not support them in getting away from the abuse. Victims may feel they made a sacred vow of commitment to their abuser, for better or worse, and are unwilling to forego it. Even if they don’t feel a personal religious obligation to stay with an abuser, if they believe their religious community would ostracize them for leaving, a victim may find that spiritual support too important to risk losing by ending their relationship.
Even if they have a good support network and no religious objections, victims often feel ashamed of being abused. Perhaps they feel embarrassed and do not want their friends, family, and community to know. They fear it will make them seem weak or that they will be judged or scorned for allowing themselves to get into this situation. Believing that they failed at their relationship, or that they were in some way responsible for or provoked the abuse, may make victims feel they must stay strong and endure the hardship rather than give up and/or face societal backlash. They may dread being viewed and treated differently, seen as weak, or even pitied. Societal expectations can be powerful pressures.
For victims who are not US citizens, their ability to remain in the country and with their children may depend on their connection with their abusive spouse. They may be unaware of their rights, of how to discover what they are, or how to seek legal advice. Language can be a challenging barrier to understanding and to independent action. Some victims may be reluctant to contact a lawyer or other knowledgeable party to investigate options, fearing even that interaction could trigger deportation or retaliation by their abuser if they found out. Abusers may also hold hostage or control access to passports and other important documents. Dreading losing not only their current lifestyle, but their right to live in their new home and/or in the same country as their children, can be an extremely powerful factor in the decision to stay in an abusive relationship.
Dynamics can get even more challenging when the abuser is a caregiver or guardian of someone who requires personal assistance, is a minor, or is unable to manage their own affairs. The victim may be reliant on their abuser to maintain their health or functionality. If the abuser administers medications or helps the victim with daily tasks, leaving may not be an option without another caregiver prepared to take over. In some cases, a caregiving abuser may have Power of Attorney to make legal decisions for the victim, which gives them much more control and adds legal complications to leaving. Conversely, if the abuser is dependent on the victim as a caregiver or guardian, the victim may feel they cannot leave because their abuser will no longer be able to function without them.
Even if they recognize the relationship is not healthy, victims may still feel love for their abuser. They remember the good times in their relationship and have hope that it could be that way again. The cycle of violence typically includes “honeymoon” periods, where the abuser is particularly loving, remorseful, generous, and kind. This causes a lot of confusion and mixed emotions for victims who still have strong feelings for their abusers and hope that they can change. They may wish to help their abuser reform and deal with their own issues, to prove their love by sticking by them no matter what. Or, perhaps they fear the abuser will harm or try to kill themselves if they leave. This may cause the victim to feel protective of this person they care or cared deeply about, and guilty for considering a situation that could result in their injury or death.
Leaving is a Process
It is very common for victims to leave and go back to their abusers multiple times. On average, victims leave or attempt to leave seven times before reaching a final decision on whether to stay or go (Respond). They may leave to test their abuser’s reaction or to motivate them to change their behavior or get help. They may leave to gather resources or information that can assist them in leaving permanently at a later time. They may leave to end the isolation their abuser has imposed, to gain support and confidence to break their abuser’s control. Taking small steps to protect their safety and take back control of their lives add up to bigger changes over time. While victims might choose to return to their abusers, they have often begun the process of finding their best path forward for a better future.
Victims may consider any or all of these reasons and more when pondering leaving an abusive relationship. Factors can also alter over time, and a victim’s choices may change with their circumstances. It can be difficult to comprehend the complexities of someone else’s relationship and thought process, which is why it is vitally important to let victims make their own decisions. Presenting options and offering support can be helpful but pressuring a loved one to leave an abuser could create an even more dangerous or burdensome situation. Only the victim themselves has the knowledge and capability to determine their possible courses of action. Understanding some of the factors that keep victims with their abusers can help loved ones and the community provide the resources and consideration necessary for a victim to make the best choices for themselves.
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